As soon as the equipment was turned on, it started to record the message. Originating at a charted but uninteresting star near the constellation Auriga was a steady, constant stream of information across a wide swath of the electromagnetic spectrum--rapidly alternating, millisecond-long blasts. When the speakers were on, you could hear the rhythm.
The group was quickly and quietly assembled, culled from universities and government installations. There was a period of secrecy; there were many variables, many scenarios to consider. Nothing was released until it became clear there was some sort of intelligence behind it.
Then the story raced through the scientific community like wildfire. Something was out there. Somebody was out there.
There was a palpable euphoria within the group. This was the thing that every one of them had been waiting for all their lives but had been too realistic to expect, to even hope for. Aliens--intelligent aliens--were making contact with our species.
Humanity was being greeted.
The message was divided into three sections, each separated by a brief silence. After a gap double that length, the entire cycle would begin again. There were only three amplitudes used in the entire message, and the group took to calling them on, off, and none.
The group was much larger now, researchers pulled from projects around the world. The linguists and anthropologists were prepared to spend a lot of time arguing about how universal the concept of binary was, but the debates became academic when the computers produced results within weeks.
The message was actually a series of pictures, four-bit-deep animation they rendered in gray, each part a different movie. Image-recognition software turned the one-dimensional stream of bits into two-dimensional pictures by running through all the possibilities of width and height until something sensible appeared.
The public was fascinated. They released all three animations as soon as they were decoded, before they had even attempted to analyze them. Soon they were distributed via videotape, computer networks, books, and even on postcards. The aliens' message entered mass consciousness. Conspiracy theories abounded; the Joint Chiefs of Staff were asked to assess the military threat; UFO "experts" wrote books on the alien's society and connected them with Stonehenge and the pyramids at Giza; televangelists called the whole thing a hoax.
The first series showed machines in orbit around a star, and thin, spindly spikes of solar plasma rising toward them. The scene faded to complex pictograms and cutaway views that the physicists scrambled to decipher.
The second was stranger. While it shared some pictograms with the first, the concepts being displayed were harder to grasp. There was no animated prelude and, at over a million frames, it ran almost twice as long as the first.
The third was pictures of the aliens themselves. Sleek and gray, with wide, black eyes, a small group performed some ritual the meaning of which no one in the group would even speculate upon. Their movements were fluid and exaggerated and almost indescribably eerie. Occasionally static would leap across a frame as the computer displayed a damaged portion of the message. After enough repetitions were collected, a composite was assembled that removed all the static, but the sense of dislocation remained.
The anthropologists claimed anthropomorphization, but the aliens looked distressed somehow.
They looked ashamed.
The first part of the message took over a year to fully decipher. Though understanding it required intuition and massive amounts of additional research, the message led the physicists almost inexorably to what they called solar mining. The pictograms described what the initial animation played out--a technique for retrieving fusing material from the core of a star. The conclusion was wildly hypothetical, resting on unproven and perhaps untestable theory. But there seemed to be no mistaking the message.
Unlimited, inexhaustible energy. The first part of the message was the key to unlimited, inexhaustible energy. The United Nations and government panels began to research and assess the possibility of a small mining operation, but even the most optimistic warned that benefits were still decades, if not centuries, off. Despite this, research continued. Limitless energy would be an incredible boon to mankind. A solution to innumerable problems.
The message was a gift. Not just a greeting, but a tremendous gift.
Next...InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 4, Number 3 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1994 Greg Knauss.